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Venezuelan TV: Kidnapped MLB catcher 'found alive'

From Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 11:59 PM EST, Fri November 11, 2011
Wilson Ramos, a rising star for the Washington Nationals, was back in his native country to play in Venezuela's winter league.
Wilson Ramos, a rising star for the Washington Nationals, was back in his native country to play in Venezuela's winter league.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Ramos is healthy and unharmed, state-run VTV reports
  • NEW: He was found by security forces about 60 miles from where he was last seen
  • Gunmen abducted Wilson Ramos Wednesday in the Venezuelan city of Valencia

(CNN) -- Major league catcher Wilson Ramos has been "found alive," two days after he was reported kidnapped by gunmen, Venezuelan state TV reported Friday.

Ramos was found by security forces in Montalban, a mountainous region about 60 miles from the north central Venezuelan town where he was last seen, according to a tweet posted late Friday by Communications Minister Andres Izarra.

Ramos was reported by state-run VTV to be healthy and unharmed.

Ramos, a rising star for the Washington Nationals as a rookie this past year, had returned to his native country to play in Venezuela's winter league.

But before his first game with the Aragua Tigers, gunmen kidnapped him Wednesday night from his mother's home in Santa Ines in Carabobo state, a team spokeswoman said.

On Thursday, authorities said that they had found the SUV they believe was used in the kidnapping and had created sketches of two of the gunmen.

Prior to his release Friday, news about the federal investigation was tightly guarded.

"It's understandable that everyone wants to know what is happening with Wilson and how the investigation goes, but remember that, in these cases, patience is key," Tigers spokeswoman Kathe Vilera said on her Twitter account. She added that keeping the details sealed could help the investigation.

"It has all the earmarks as a targeted kidnapping: selected victim, selected location, selected time," said Chris Voss, a kidnapping specialist for Insite Security who has handled six cases involving Venezuela and who worked for the FBI for 26 years. "There's an outside possibility that they thought they were grabbing another member of the family, but that's extremely unlikely."

Kidnapping as an industry has crossed the border from Colombia into Venezuela, Voss said. "When criminals next door show you a model of how to make money easily -- and kidnapping is usually pretty easy money -- then other kidnappers will simply ape it."

But targeting athletes and other celebrities can be a mistake, he said. "It's going to bring too much law enforcement scrutiny down on them; too much international scrutiny. And media attention and scrutiny from law enforcement worldwide is bad for business."

Ramos, 24, emerged as the Nationals' top catcher this past season. He had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in.

Though soccer reigns in most Latin American countries, it is baseball that rules in Venezuela, which routinely feeds players to major league teams in the United States.

That pipeline has been transformed in recent years because of violence.

As Venezuela's economy has stagnated in recent years, crimes such as kidnapping and murder have risen. According to the National Institute of Statistics, 16,917 people were kidnapped between July 2008 and July 2010, or about 23 kidnappings a day.

Baseball players who play professionally in the United States, whether in the major or minor leagues, are typically targeted for their money, though Ramos' case is the first time a player himself has been snatched. Usually, a family member is held for ransom.

"Government, please do something because Venezuela is crumbling with so much insecurity while you say that Venezuela is safe," Venezuelan baseball player Jose Castillo wrote on his Twitter account.

Melvin Dorta, a Venezuelan playing professionally in the U.S. Atlantic Independent League, told CNN that there are lots of opportunities in Venezuela, but also pitfalls.

Dorta has played for the Aragua Tigers and is a friend and former teammate of Ramos.

"Venezuela does have one of the best winter leagues, but it is one of the leagues where the Americans ask before going because of the insecurity and the dangers that one faces," he said.

Those dangers have led many American teams to abandon their baseball academies in Venezuela, said Arturo Marcano, a lawyer and sports columnist who co-authored a book about the recruitment of players from Venezuela.

When major league teams noticed the talent sitting in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, they increased their investment in the region. Instead of relying on scouts to find players, they instituted the academies to find, train and sign players, Marcano said.

"The goal is to identify the players and sign the players, and if you can do it as cheaply as possible, all the better," he told CNN.

As crime in Venezuela increased, however, operating the academies became dangerous for their managers and scouts.

"All of a sudden, with these safety issues, teams started to leave," Marcano said.

At its peak, about 16 major league teams operated baseball academies in Venezuela, he said. Today, that number is only five or six. Teams have returned to the practice of sending only scouts, and then sending promising players to academies in the Dominican Republic.

Venezuelans who make it to the big leagues in the United States and return home become targets because there is a perception that they all make a lot of money, Marcano said. But for the minor leaguers and nonsuperstars in their first major league years, that is not necessarily the case.

Another aspect that may have influenced the Ramos kidnapping is that players from humble backgrounds who make money in the pros often return to the rough neighborhoods where their families live. Working-class families often don't want to leave their neighborhoods and their friends; they may feel they don't belong in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. For example, Ramos was kidnapped from the home of his relatives, who had stayed in a tough area despite his success.

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